Title: Alvin and the Chipmunks
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Family
Play time:1h 32min
Director: Tim Hill
Screenwriters: Jon Vitti, Will McRobb
Starring: Jason Lee, Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Janice Karman
By far the funniest thing about this painful, if not quite insufferable, family comedy from Fox is its bold stance against merchandising and tie-in marketing. A scheming record company exec played by David Cross wants to exploit Alvin and the Chipmunks by having them lip-sync pre-packaged pop ditties that sell truckloads of bilingual chipmunk dolls. “It’s not about the music,” Cross’s “Uncle Ian” sneers and everyone else laments; commercialism is the villain here, so awful and crass.
Roused by the film’s clarion call to action, I hereby announce that I will not be purchasing the new Alvin and the Chipmunks video game, or any part of the Alvin and the Chipmunks merchandising blitz unleashed upon us since the novelty characters were introduced 50 years ago. I guess it would be impolite to ask whether the singing rodents, who were pimping the hula hoop as a Christmas gift in “The Chipmunk Song” back in 1958, were ever “about the music,” so I’ll just quietly oblige. But it’s probably good to note the irony.
The aggressive position on artistic integrity is particularly rich not just because of the marketing juggernaut of a brand name that Alvin and the Chipmunks is counting on for its opening weekend numbers, but because this is precisely the type of anonymous, completely vanilla kidflick that is normally (and for good reason) associated with cynical attempts to sell cheeseburgers and toys. It’s fart jokes, fancy CGI, a token romance, and an anodyne, shoehorned-in message about the virtues of “family” — all the ingredients of a meaningless PG-rated time waster meant to get parents and their kids to drop eighty dollars per clan on a trip to the theater. “They’re chipmunks who talk,” says David Cross. “People will come.” I’ve never heard a movie express the fervent hopes of its producers with such disarming directness.
The screenplay is not a complete dead zone, perhaps because one of the screenwriters, Jon Vitti, did time on The Simpsons and had a hand in last summer’s mostly-brilliant Simpsons Movie. There is an occasional flash of wit: I liked the morose song about “the abyss of death” that Dave (Jason Lee) initially submits to Ian, as well as the fawning record company secretarial staff that insists they “ran out” of water when Dave goes from next big thing to reject in the span of a 5-minute meeting. But these signs of life — hints that someone involved with Alvin and the Chipmunks had any desire to do anything beyond making a passable multiplex placeholder for the holiday season — are few, and it soon becomes clear that the movie is inexorably on a path to absolute mediocrity.
The computer-animated Chipmunks are sleek and impressive, though depending on whom you ask this might detract from their charm. Their songs are bland, and mostly sound like generic Britney-Spears-on-helium. The youngest may enjoy the innocuous humor (typical gag: chipmunks make a big mess) and very rudimentary adventures (though the movie weirdly elides what I assumed would be the Big Climactic Escape in favor of a joke about how easy it is for talking chipmunks to get out of a cat carrier), but I doubt even they will be charmed by the manufactured sentimentality. This should set your expectations right: Alvin, Simon and Theodore’s first two musical numbers in the film are a Daniel Powter cover and “Funkytown.” So there you have it.